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Stakeholders want safe environment for media operation in 2021

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Audrey Azoulay


In order to stem the precarious situation, which media operated last year, practitioners and stakeholders in the industry have called on government to ensure that media houses and journalists are adequately protected in 2021.

This is following United Nations Educational, Scientific Cultural Organisation’s (UNESCO) renewed commitment to raise awareness of the role of information as a public good.

In its recent report, UNESCO noted that 59 media workers were killed in 2020, among them four women. With 22 killings each, the Latin America and the Caribbean region and the Asia and the Pacific region registered the highest number of fatalities in the profession, followed by the Arab states region with nine and Africa with six.

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“Overall, 2020 saw one of the lowest yearly tolls recorded by UNESCO over the past decade, during which 888 journalists and media workers’ paid the ultimate price for informing the public. In 2019, UNESCO condemned the killing of 57 journalists, 99 in 2018,” said the agency.

The 2020 UNESCO Director-General’s Report on the Safety of Journalists and the Danger Impunity, published on the occasion of the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes Against Journalists on November 2, provided insight into the patterns of killings of journalists over the past two years (2018 to 2019).

The Report revealed that on average over the past decade, one journalist was killed every four days. It also showed impunity for crimes against journalists continues to prevail, despite a slight improvement in 2020 (87 per cent compared to 88 per cent in 2019).

According to UNESCO, impunity against the media fuels violence and the resulting self-censorship deprives society of information and further affects press freedom. It directly impacts the United Nations’ human rights based efforts to promote peace, security, and sustainable development.

“In 2020, we witnessed in a possibly unprecedented way, the relevance of journalism to our democracies and to the protection of human rights. However, the pandemic was also a ‘perfect storm’ affecting press freedom worldwide,” said Audrey Azoulay, Director-General of UNESCO.

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While calling on the world to stand up for information as a public good in 2021, Azoulay said, “protecting journalism is protecting the truth.”

The Regional Adviser on Freedom of Expression and the Safety of Journalists UNESCO Liaison Office to the African Union and the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, Addis Ababa Ethiopia, Lydia Gachungi, told The Guardian that the primary role of protecting journalists lies with the government.

She argued that government must make the perpetrators of crimes against journalists and other media workers accountable as well as strengthening the judicial system by training its staff on the importance of journalists’ safety and media freedom.

Additionally, the safety of women journalists was a major source of concern to the body in 2020. Targeted for their profession and gender, women journalists are particularly affected by online harassment and gender-based violence.

To create a better understanding of the issue, UNESCO and the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) launched a global survey on online violence against women journalists and effective measures to combat the problem in October 2020.

Seventy-three per cent of women journalists who responded said they had experienced online violence in the course of their work, and 20 per cent said that the online harassment endured was followed by abuse or attacks offline.

Similarly, President, Nigerian Union of Journalist (NUJ), Chris Isiguzo, said, “this year, we expect a government that is more alive to its duty, protecting lives and properties of the citizenry which of course is the primary responsibility of a responsible government, not just the journalists but everybody in the system.”

He recalled that 2020 saw a clampdown on media. “Even the people that we are supposedly speaking for also came up against us. I remember what happened across the country in Adamawa, Akwa Ibom and Cross River states where media houses were attacked. I also recall what happened to TVC and The Nation Newspapers. We are hopeful that in 2021, it will be far better than we experienced in 2020.” 

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In his view, President, Nigerian Guild of Editors (NGE), Mustapha Isah, stated that government should ensure special police protection for media houses. He insisted their working environment is safe enough for journalists to practice their profession, adding: “Though ultimate security lies in the hand of God.” 

The press, he emphasised, is the Fourth Estate of the realm. “If you look at other arms of the government for instance — the executive, judiciary and legislature, they have police protection, so what is wrong in protecting media houses? Overzealous security agencies also attack media houses under the guise that they are protecting their principals but it is wrong. They should be educated that we are doing our job. We are not threat to anybody but threat to dictators and those who are into bad governance. In the course of doing our job, we may offend some people because they don’t like the truth. They may organise and attack us. What happened to The Nation and TVC should be a wakeup call.”

Continuing, he said, as for safety of media practitioners, employers should consider giving reporters insurance cover.

“In case something happens, their families will have something to fall back on,” he advised. Challenges to the safety of journalists were exacerbated by COVID-19. The crisis it unleashed has threatened the very viability and survival of professional media outlets, notably due to massive advertising revenue loss, and has created an even more precarious environment for media workers with new challenges to their right to seek, receive and impart information.

Additionally, in many countries, emergency legislation and measures adopted to curtail the spread of the virus have served as an alibi to restrict freedom of expression and of the press. Journalists have also been prosecuted for exposing the failings in authorities’ handling of the health crisis. Together, these conditions have formed what many have called a ‘perfect storm’ leading to fear that the profession of journalism risks facing ‘extinction’, as noted in the issue brief journalism, press freedom and COVID-19.

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Similarly, NGE president observed that the economy is affecting media houses due to COVID -19. “Once companies have issues with finances, they would say they want to cut down on advert. They believe they can survive without advert and it affects media houses. We are looking at how banks can make something available for media houses. We are not saying give us free money, no, if they can make something available to the media houses to survive, we’ll pay back. This will ensure media houses do not sack their members of staff. There will be job security. Reporters that do not have job security can do anything to survive. If a reporter is being owed, he can compromise. We don’t want that. They are also human beings and they have families to take care of.”

Conclusively, he said: “We would also call on editors to ensure that they follow the ethics of the profession even in the face of intimidation. Whoever does that and people come after them, the Guild will defend the person’s interest to the latter. Editors should not operate under duress.”

Relatedly, Media Rights Agenda (MRA) Programmes Director, Ayode Longe, said that when someone commits crime and government does not investigate or prosecute, the person knows that he can commit such crimes again.

“That is what is called impunity. We have always said that an attack on media houses or journalists is an attack on the citizens’ rights to receive information. When media houses and journalists are attacked and government does nothing, there may be likelihood of self-censorship by media houses. 

“So, government should show interest, investigate and prosecute. If there are consequences on attacks against journalists, the incidents will drastically reduce, though it may not stop,” he noted.

Commenting on their plans for the media in 2021, NUJ president disclosed that the union is looking at better welfare packages for journalists.

Journalists in Nigeria, he observed, are about the least remunerated professionals in Africa, adding that it is not a good one for us. “We are supposedly the giant of Africa, so journalists should be better remunerated. 

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“We are looking at a more positive 2021, a year we’ll sing Eldorado. We hope that COVID-19 will not ground 2021. We are also coming up with training and retraining for our colleagues. The world is moving at the speed of light and we cannot afford to be left behind. We are also having elections in 2021, so we expect our colleagues to come out and elect the best of the best.”  

To face the challenges media faced in 2020, UNESCO reinforced its awareness-raising programmes, engaged with the judicial profession to fight impunity, reinforced the UN Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity, produced timely information about these pressing issues and increased capacity building opportunities for journalists and other media workers.
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To this end, new commitments to addressing these challenges were made by key actors during the World Press Freedom Conference, organized by UNESCO and the Government of the Netherlands on 9-10 December. This included a new € 7 million allocation from the Netherlands to UNESCO and the OHCHR to strengthen press freedom and the safety of journalists in the coming years. Throughout the Conference, more than 50 ministers, along with high-level representatives of the United Nations, media and civil society came together as part of an urgent call to protect press freedom and safety of journalists worldwide.

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